WHO IS John Mortimer? In England, not a question to ask -- there Mortimer enjoys celebrity status. For good reason, for he manages to lead a formidable double life, that of a distinguished trial attorney and man of letters, with exceptional panache. If this unpretentious memoir doesn't tell us how he manages to pack it all in, it conveys very well the flavor of a remarkable, and remarkably engaging, personality.
As a top barrister, Mortimer has "taken silk," giving him the privilege -- amusingly described in Clinging to the Wreckage -- of wearing the black silk gown of a Queen's Counsel and banquetting on flabby sausage at the Lord Chancellor's breakfast in the Long Gallery of the House of Lords. More substantively important are Mortimer's courtroom efforts in behalf of liberal causes: the defense of impoverished wretches in the dock at the Old Bailey; of free speech (the censorship cases involving Herbert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn and the schoolkids' issue of Oz magazine, which gave offense by providing the beloved bear Rupert with a huge erection); and of civil liberties generally. For Amnesty International, Mortimer handled the case in behalf of playwright Wole Soyinka, facing a trumped up charge of robbery with violence in his native Nigeria. In such matters Mortimer has an excellent track record. I recently ran into Soyinka in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was giving a paper on Shakespeare at an international conference. Last year I encountered Mortimer in Stratford; he was giving a paper at another Shakespeare conference. Small world, as a sage once said.
As an all-round literary gent, Mortimer has written plays, short stories and novels. He contributes regularly to the posh London Sunday Times. His deepest instincts being thoroughly democratic, he hasn't turned up his nose at such popular media as the movies or television. In this country more people know Mortimer than know they know him, for last season he entranced multitudes with his sumptuous (and faithful) adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a series which in Washington resulted in a magnum jump in champagne sales. Mortimer is also the creator of the Rumpole of the Bailey series, of which it is safe to say that we haven't yet heard the last.
At 59 Mortimer has slipped comfortably into his anecdotage. I like the one about the anonymous Cockney who whispered in the QC's ear, as they sat sweating out the jury's verdict for an attempted murder rap, "Your Mr. Rumpole could've got me out of this, so why the hell can't you?" Thus, as Mortimer notes, does art take its revenge on life? (Or is it the other way around?)
The anecdotes concern the departed as well as the living. The 19th-century French farceur Feydeau, from whose Puce a l'Orielle Mortimer fashioned his National Theatre hit A Flea in Her Ear, was famous for his laziness. "Turn round," a friend once whispered to him. "The prettiest woman I've ever seen has just come into the room." Without moving, Feydeau replied, "Describe her to me." The actor Laurence Harvey would ride around London's Mayfair on the extra saddle of a chauffeur-driven motor scooter. In restaurants he would abuse his wife, the actress Margaret Leighton, by ordering the wine-waiter to "pour another drink for my mother." Mortimer handled the divorce. With sure theatrical sense Leighton arrived at the High Court of Justice "in full mourning, very pale, supported on the arm of Terrence Rattigan who also seemed dressed for a State funeral."
But the unsung furnish some of the best moments in these pages. At school there was the scowling Tainton, a masturbator of Olympian proficiency, who once locked up a pony dosed with castor oil in the lady's lavatory during a hunt ball. Arthur Jeffries, a wealthy scion of an American family, had his own palazzo and gondola in Venice, with uniformed gondoliers; in his London house he could feast 24 off a solid gold dinner service. A homosexual unable to form any lasting relationshios, Jeffries committed suicide in the same Paris hotel in which Oscar Wilde had died.
Mortimer talks unaffectedly about his parents, friendships, love life (including an affair with the engagingly named Angela Bedwell), and two marriages; about the law (he is not unexpectadly against capital punishment), movie-making, and the writer's life generally. Behind everything looms the exraordinary figure of Mortimer's father, himself a distinguished advocate and author of a standard treatise on probate. He had some strongly held views; for example, he vehemently opposed the use of opium on the grounds that it caused constipation: "terrible binding effect." A tall, fair-haired man, the elder Mortimer would transfix witnesses with his pale blue eyes. Yet he was blind for much of his adult life, a fact only accidentally discovered by the son when he came home from school one afternoon; out of peculiarly English compulsion to avoid anything even faintly embarrassing, the disability was never mentioned.
Years later the son would write a hit play, Voyage Round My Father, which I was fortunate enough to catch in the West End with Alec Guiness in the title role. By giving his father to other people, Mortimer came to lose him for himself, for (as he tells us) he became unable to distinguish between what his father had actually said and what he had created for him to say. The father had left him to become a character in a play. Such is the artist's fulfillment and deprivation.
These days Mortimer lives with his family in the leafy Chilterns, and tends the same garden his father so lovingly cultivated. The opening of this memoir sets the tone. Once a gray-bearded seafarer seated himself next to Mortimer at lunch and suddenly asked the author what he would do if his boat was suddenly struck by a dangerous gale in the Channel; then volunteered that the last thing would be to attempt to swim to shore. "You invariably drown. As I can't swim I cling to the wreckage and they send a helicopter out for me. That's my tip, if you ever find yourself in trouble cling to the wreckage!" Good advice, as they say in the TV ad. Clinging to the Wreckage is pretty good too, by turns humorous, poignant, and informative; it should win new fans in this country for a literary contender who, if not in the heavyweight division; is one we'll be hearing a lot more about.