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.


  1. Ana,
    Here I am again, reading more history.

  2. And you are always welcome, my dear friend. :-)

  3. There are two connections with Australia. Firstly the rather wonderful Leo McKern was in fact born, raised and educated here. Secondly Sir John Mortimer spent time here - I heard him speak in public then I had the good fortune to have a short personal conversation with him afterwards.

    I loved the television programme so it was not surprising to me at all that Sir John Mortimer would be an excellent speaker and thinker.

    Vale John

  4. Thanks for that link, Jessica. :-)

    Hels,yes, I've seen Leo McKern in the role of Rumpole. He was truly excellent. Mortimer dedicated one of his collections to him.

  5. It's very interesting. Good subject.
    I'll come back again.

  6. You will be more than welcome, Bruno. :-)

  7. Ah, where does one begin with Sir John Mortimer. I did not know about the memorial service. I'll have to look it up as I'm sure it must have been a magical otherworldly event. He had a scholarly command over the works of Lord Byron. I too, never got my head around his close connection with the Labour Party. I suspect it may have had something to do with his friends such as Lord and Lady Kinnock who were close to him. What follows is my personal tribute to his life and work.

    He passed away on 16 January. He was born on 21 April 1923 in Hampstead to Clifford Mortimer and Kathleen May (née Smith). At 17, John went up to Brasenose College, Oxford to study law. Brasenose College was then temporarily based at Christ Church – The Brasenose buildings having been re-commissioned for the war effort. He married Penelope Ruth Fletcher in 1949 from whom he had a son (Jeremy Mortimer) and a daughter (Sally Silverman). They divorced in 1971. He married Penelope Gollop in 1972 who bore him 2 daughters: Emily (born 1 December 1973) and Rosie (born 1984). In November 1961 John Mortimer had a son with the actress Wendy Craig. He found out about this in August 2004 and both son (Ross Bentley) and father were happily united. John Mortimer was awarded the CBE in 1986 and knighted in 1998. He wrote numerous books and presented TV programs among which some of the best remembered will be the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father (1963), the TV dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited (1981) and his magnum opus: Rumpole of the Bailey (what I refer to as Rumpole à la Bailey). He will also be remembered for skilfully defending the trail against D. H. Laurence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, the second day of which was attended by Sylvia Plath who wrote about it in her journals.

    The funeral was held on 22 at St Mary’s Church (next to the White Cottage where Sir John Mortimer had lived with his first wife), Turville (near Henley-on-Thames. This is also where his parents lie buried. Among those that attended were Jeremy Paxman, Melvyn Bragg, Lord Kinnock and his wife Glenys. Ross Bentley was seated in the front row with his mother Wendy Craig. The vicar said in her sermon

    Sir John called himself and atheist for Christ. He always came to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. But he emphatically did not believe in life after death. My hope, is that he has had a wonderful surprise.

    (Valerie Grove. ‘Church funeral of atheist John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole.’ The Times, 23 January 2009).

    His wife Penelope read from Shakespeare’s Richard III after which a recording of John Mortimer reading from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ was played. Rosie and Emily recited Byron’s ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’ which I think must have been an absolutely inspired choice. His daughter Sally along with 6 of his grandchildren read from ‘Ecclesiastes.’
    Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ played as the crowd walked out into the obliging sunshine.