Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sir John Mortimer 1923-2009

Sir John Mortimer, barrister and writer, has died at the age of 85. As John Walsh writes in The Independent:
He was funny, subversive, kind, single-minded, rather vain (despite his unorthodox looks and bottle-bottom spectacles), shockingly flirtatious with women and extremely keen on having an audience. He straddled the worlds of advocacy and showbusiness with ease, but will probably be remembered most for creating a grouchy, middle-aged, ash-stained, poetry-quoting, claret-bibbing, henpecked defence lawyer called Horace Rumpole and pitching him into court battles on behalf of mainly under-class clients, whom he saved from perdition. Like Rumpole, Mortimer himself took on only defence cases. Although his legal work was overshadowed by his status as a bestseller, he was a stalwart fighter for freedom and against censorship. Often accused of being a "champagne socialist", he was a passionate liberal all his life.
The Times has a series of Mortimer interviews and articles from their archive, while The Guardian has an obituary by Geoffrey Robertson QC.
He determined to be a writer, and on leaving school joined the Crown Film Unit, devising accounts of industrial and military Britain in wartime. But Clifford had other ideas, a clash captured in A Voyage Round My Father, the account by John of their relationship that first surfaced on BBC radio in 1963: "Father: ... if you were only a writer, who would you rub shoulders with? (with contempt) Other writers? You'll be far better off in the law. Son: I don't know. Father: No brilliance is needed in the law. Nothing but common sense, and relatively clean fingernails. Another thing, if you were a writer, think of your poor, unfortunate wife... Son: What? Father: She'd have you at home every day! In carpet slippers... Drinking tea and stumped for words! You'd be far better off down the tube each morning, and off to the law courts...

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